I usually write reviews of games when I've either finished them, or got as far into them as I'm able to get, but for a change I decided to write a review of House Of The Midnight Sun as I was actually playing it.
What's it about?
It's a game about vampires, always a favourite subject of mine (heck, I even wrote one myself a few years back) with you, the intrepid vampire hunter, out to rid the world of the long-toothed menaces. You've travelled to Transylvania to combat them, albeit you haven't come very well prepared as you start the game without a single item to your name……
'Nicely written' was the first thing I thought upon starting the game. The location descriptions aren't especially lengthy but the writer does a first class job of setting the scene and there's a genuine sense of menace hanging over the proceedings.
A few minor issues arise. There's no HELP or HINT command (always a bad point) and the game uses the MENU command instead of the more common ABOUT or INFO. Admittedly it does point out the MENU command right at the start of the game, but by the time I decided to use it, an hour or so into play, I'd forgotten about it and it wasn't till I restarted after being killed that I saw the option again. The puzzles at the start are pretty well clued so help isn't really required until later on, but one puzzle - stopping the ice man - had me stumped for a while because the one command I thought was obvious didn't work yet another, less obvious command (although still clued) was the one I needed.
The problem with the ice man is a timed puzzle, and one of the annoying kind that has a tendency to kill you off if you make a wrong move. As I was battling with guess the verb issues at the time, I ended up being killed off more than a few times before I hit upon the right combination and finally dealt with him.
There seem to be a few red herrings thrown into the start of the game that either don't do anything (and the online walkthrough I found would back me up on this) or just have a purpose that I was never able to discern. I found a hand poking out of the wall beneath a cottage, yet no matter what I tried, I wasn't able to do anything about it aside from try to take the hand… and wind up deader than the vampires I'm hunting in the process. In another location, special mention is made of some vines - even referred to as Devil's vine when you examine them. Trying to cut the vines implies that the vines can be cut, but you don't have anything suitable to cut them with. Search as I did, and even consulted the walkthrough, but I couldn't find a single thing capable of cutting them. Inform's parser didn't help me much either, as it kept throwing up messages along the lines of "I only understood you as far as wanting to cut the Devil's vine" in response to 90% of the things I typed. If there's a way to actually get the Devil's vine at this stage in the game, I never discovered it.
On to the next part of the game. An attempt at digging plunges me into an underground chamber from out of which there at first appears to be no escape due to the way in being out of reach and the only other exit blocked by a horde of rats. There were some strange errors here in that the rats were blocking the exit and yet the most obvious command - KILL RATS - produced the response "you don't need to worry about the rats". Clearly I do as they're in my way. The solution was a fairly easy one to come across, if a little on the gruesome side, but the whole puzzle struck me as a bit of a stretch. The obvious command hadn't been accounted for which forced the player to follow the designs of the puzzle, seemingly for no other reason than the writer wanted people to get past the rats in this manner and no other way. Surely the KILL RATS command should have produced a proper response, even if was just a simple "you can't, there's too many of them". Then again, I wasn't able to burn them with the tinderbox I was carrying either.
Not long after this I became completely stuck, and spent quite a time swearing at the game for not including even the most basic hints. After checking the walkthrough, I spent longer swearing at myself for being unable to see the solution to a puzzle that was right before my eyes. In fact, most of the puzzles up to this stage in the game had been like that: difficult upon first reaching them, but logical enough when you actually think about them. I suppose it goes to show just how bad I am these days at solving puzzles when the really obvious in-your-face kind just completely baffle me sometimes. (But I still think hints would have been a good idea.)
Most of the time, House Of The Midnight Sun shows a high level of testing and covers commands you might not expect it to. In other places, the testing seems pretty minimal at best. I came across the slaughtered carcass of a bull, hung upon a hook, and examining it showed something metal lodged inside. Trying to take the metal resulted in "the spider won't let you!" which was quite surprising as I hadn't even been aware there was a spider up to that stage. Again, the obvious command of KILL SPIDER didn't produce a helpful response - "violence isn't the answer to this one" - which required me to engage in another game of guess-the-puzzle. Likewise, I wasn't able to burn the spider with my tinderbox or get rid of it by throwing things at it.
It was here I encountered the first actual bug of the game. Pity. I had been hoping that, minor errors aside, it might be bug free. The metal lodged in the bull's carcass can't be taken if referred to as 'metal' (this is when the spider jumps out at you), yet look into the bull and you see the metal is actually a 'saw'. GET SAW works fine. No sign of the troublesome spider.
It was also around this time that I started to notice that not all of the game had been as carefully put together as the earlier parts and gave me the impression that this section had been rushed through. The pantry description is a single line long and lacking in any kind of depth. The descriptions of the two items mentioned are even shorter. Okay, it might be a minor point that the pantry description isn't lengthier and the descriptions of the items within aren't much to write home about, but sometimes it's the little things that make or break a game. And as the little things had been covered earlier in the game, it's disappointing that they aren't covered now.
Up to this point, House Of The Midnight Sun had been a fairly linear and compact game. There had been very little room to explore and I had been forced along a very set path. But now that I had arrived in the vampire's castle, things began to open up. A large number of locations were presented to me, some seeming almost empty, others filled with hazards (including several fatal ones but I'll come to them in a moment). While I was pleased to see a variation, it also meant the game got quite a bit harder as there were several points now at which I was stuck for a way forward.
Again, it was guess the verb that stopped me in my tracks. One room has a block of ice in the middle of the floor. (Why is there a block of ice in the middle of the floor? Why hasn't it melted?) As I was carrying a tinderbox, my first thought was to try and melt it using this. No joy. Likewise, I had a bottle with me filled with water that was hot to the touch. Could I use this to melt the ice? In a way, but MELT ICE didn't work. The actual solution, supplied to me by the walkthrough, was one of those that probably seemed incredibly obvious to the writer but it sure didn't to this poor player.
Another location featured more of the Devil's vine I had encountered at the start of the game. This time I had the saw I had taken from the bull's carcass so I immediately set at it with CUT VINE WITH SAW which hit me with the strange response "I only understood you as far as wanting to cut the Devil's vine". CUT VINE, funnily enough, produced the correct response.
As well as being a game about vampires, House Of The Midnight Sun features a few other monsters of legend. Frankenstein's monster turns up at one point, there's a witch, Bluebeard the pirate, and even Jack the Ripper…
The incident with Jack the Ripper was a strange one. There's a torture chamber you find, the only ways out of it being the door you entered by and a chain. Climb the chain and Jack gets you, only at the time you aren't aware that it's Jack the Ripper because it never actually says so. You basically get knocked unconscious and wake up to find yourself tied to a wooden board over a pit. Now it might have been a good idea to take the player's items away at this point because I woke up, tied to the board, and then, despite the fact that I was tied up, I was able to drop my items and then pick them back up again. How was I able to drop items when I was tied up like that? For that matter, how come the items didn't simply fall into the pit the moment I let go of them?
If it's possible to get out of this little predicament in one piece without being psychic, I never discovered it. The guy who put the walkthrough together didn't either. Instead, it seems you need to go back a few locations and ask the witch you came across about a character you haven't even met yet. Now I can't guarantee that this character isn't mentioned at some point during the game (although my transcript would argue otherwise), but it seems a bit of a leap that the player is expected to realise he needs to ask the witch about the character (even assuming you're aware this character even exists!) in order to gain an item without which you're never going to finish the game. All the previous puzzles in the game had been very well clued but this one was just off the radar in terms of sheer unfair.
But on with the game…
One annoying aspect that crept into the game now was a profusion of locked doors. I had the keys to most of them so there was no problem involved in getting past them, but was it really necessary to make the player unlock every single one of them? Maybe attempting to walk in the direction of the door should, if you're carrying the correct key for it, open it automatically for you?
For a while after this, I managed to make a lot of progress without too much difficulty at all. I came across Bluebeard's ship (referred to as Blackbeard in the log!), the crew of which were all dead, and managed to sail this ship to an underground island in a lake and retrieve a little item the witch wanted. The only parts I had trouble with were EXAMINE and SEARCH sometimes yielding different responses; whereas before in the game, you tended to just EXAMINE something and find what was needed, now you would occasionally find something by SEARCHING that you couldn't find by EXAMINING.
I was now very close to the end of the game (although didn't realise it at the time), and things began to get considerably harder here. Whereas before, the majority of the puzzles (with the notable exception of the Jack the Ripper puzzle) had been fairly logical and straightforward, here the difficulty was cranked up several notches. There were also instances where things happened that seemed to make precious little sense, and which I only discovered the solution to by a lot of wandering aimlessly around (and, yes, that ever helpful walkthrough).
One puzzle involves placing an item on the spindle in the castle clocktower, and then moving to another location at exactly midnight. What I never realised, and which I only discovered by use of the walkthrough, was that a certain event occurs in the other location at midnight, but only if you've placed the item on the spindle. How the player is expected to realise this I don't know. Yes, it's a vampire game and the midnight hour features in a lot of vampire films, but how can the player reason which location they need to be in at midnight? Fortunately, if you happen to be in the wrong location at midnight, the spindle knocks the item off and the timer resets itself so you can have another go at it.
Now armed with the weapon I received at midnight (and why didn't I come to the castle armed with such a weapon in the first place?), I was again at a loss as to what to do next. There was still one unlocked door in the castle that I hadn't yet been able to find a way of opening, but I doubted the weapon I had found was going to be of any use there. (As it happened, I tried and found that, no, it wasn't any use at all.) But during my wanderings through the castle, trying to discover what it was I needed to do next, I stumbled on a location I had passed through earlier in the game and found things had changed. My very first vampire! Put paid to a few seconds later by use of my trusty weapon.
The only other puzzle to be solved in the game after the disposal of the vampire is getting access to Dracula's coffin itself. The solution was a strange one, and another that I wouldn't have figured out myself without the walkthrough. Maybe I'm just getting especially bad at text adventures, but I'm betting not many people would have hit upon the solution without a little help. After that, disposing of the evil Count is a simple task: point your weapon at him, fire it and he's gone. In a way, the killing of Dracula is very anti-climactic and puts a bit of a downer on what was otherwise a very entertaining game. I'd have preferred a longer fight, or the Count giving an Evil Villain Speech as per the best evil villains. A few words and then him dying just wasn't the same thing.
The end of the game, which was just a few moves after the demise of Dracula, was a tad disappointing. You know how you play a game through to the end, defeat all the enemies, solve the puzzles and overcome all odds - only to find yourself with an ending that's probably less satisfactory than you dying two moves into the games? I've played a number of good adventure games that end in such a way (Adam Cadre's Varicella being perhaps the best example), and House Of The Midnight Sun is another to add to the list. Maybe there's a kind of perversion in writing deliberately bad endings for the main character with the writer thinking "ha! He did everything he needed to do and he's still screwed at the end!" I don't know. Myself, I'd have preferred a happy ending with the hero wandering off into the sunset content in the knowledge that he'd rid the world of the vampire menace.
A few random thoughts…
House Of The Midnight Sun is a huge game, spanning around a hundred locations, and for the most part it makes good use of the locations. Most games that have this many locations tend to have quite a few filler ones thrown in as well, as if the writer decided it would be a good idea to include a couple dozen rooms for no other reason than he felt like it. While this sort of thing does happen in this game, it's not a particularly bad thing here. The game has a definite retro feel to it - the way it's written, the overall atmosphere of the game, the puzzles and so on - and the extra locations seem to fit right in. Although saying that, I'm sure a few of them could have been cut out to keep things down to a more manageable size.
Items referred to in room descriptions are pretty much hit and miss. Some can be examined, some can't. There never seems to be any kind of consistency in this sort of thing. An item in one location will carry a description; a similar item in another location will return an error message when you try and examine it. In a game of this size, where takeable items are often concealed behind other items mentioned in the room descriptions, it's often frustrating not being able to examine the things you see. You need to be especially persistent in examining things to be hit by "you can't see any such thing" half a dozen times in a row, and still keep on examining everything else in case there's something you need.
Would I have finished House Of The Midnight Sun without being able to consult the walkthrough from time to time? I doubt it very much. Some of the puzzles I got stuck on - the crocodile one in particular - were the kind of things that I would have figured out eventually given the time (or so I'd like to think anyway ), but others - melting the block of ice, getting access to Dracula's coffin, the Jack the Ripper problem - I don't think I'd have ever got to grips with. Often, there would be puzzles that seem to have an obvious solution, but the game doesn't accept that solution and instead forces you to do things its own way. Sometimes (the rats puzzle springs to mind) the game's own way isn't especially difficult to figure out; other times (the block of ice) it's a pain.
My main issues with the game, and for the most part they were relatively minor issues that didn't really affect my overall enjoyment of it, were the lack of hints - sooner or later, I tend to get stuck in most games, and even when the puzzles are well clued, as they tend to be here, it's still likely that people will become stuck at some point. No hints is never a good idea. Other than that, the game's only real fault is the lack of motivation on the part of the player, and the player's strange lack of preparation. I'm a vampire hunter, that much is indicated right at the start of the game, yet why am I a vampire hunter? Have I previously been wronged by vampires and I'm out seeking revenge? Or do I just hate them for what they are and am intent on killing them for no other reason than they're evil and deserve to die? The player's lack of preparation is a strange thing. Would I really set out to kill vampires without first arming myself with a cross, stake, holy water, garlic and the like? Surely even the most hapless vampire hunter would find himself a weapon beforehand?
And I'm not too chuffed with the ending either. Is there another one I missed where the vampire hunter lives happily ever after?
But those are minor issues that for the most part can be overlooked. Overall House Of The Midnight Sun is a first class horror game: well written, creepy and with enough gruesomeness and gore thrown in to keep any fan of the genre satisfied.
7 out of 10